Thursday, July 9, 2015

Performing & Storytelling Theory: A Future Perfect Possibility by Rachel Ceasar

Performing & Storytelling Theory: A Future Perfect Possibility Lamenting his poverty and lack of a sleep pillow, a young boy approaches us. With his head cocked to one side, he begs in words we do not understand nor stop to listen to. We do not stop to listen and in our response, we give him coins and containers of curry. Back on the bus, my riding companion awes at the way the boy put his head, the way he spoke and made a face—what a performance, it is all a performance, he tells me. Performance is a theme that comes to mind when I was running around the city this weekend. From Friday to Sunday, we took to task to perform our way of being in a world that is Joburg. Performance occurred in many ways this weekend: We spoke about how certain people perform (aggression no, humorous yes) but in secret terms and texts exchanged across tables. We spoke about taking part in performances (strip clubs no, Soweto and pap yes), but judged too quickly instead of asking more questions. We spoke about our own performances with the city (dinners on WhatsApp yes, more poses yes! yes!) but filtered it through stacks of photos and Facebook curations. We enacted the performativity of our encounters between us and the city of Joburg through aspirations of happiness: we aspired to take part in the biggest club experience in Sandtown, the most delicious food, the best rooftops and poses. In the pursuit of a "future perfect” happiness that knows no past (to paraphrase Zadie Smith), we strove for the meta with little reflection for the now and present in front of us. At times, we forgot to take care of each other in the hope of a larger, better kind of possible happiness that was perhaps somewhere out there in Joburg. We can see this same kind of performativity in our scholarly presentations and discussions. What would it look like to introduce care into how we share our life’s work and research? To give vitality and context to theory, to speak plainly from a place of intellectual generosity (instead of intellectual vomit)? Theory need not mystify our thoughts, but act as a tool to share our stories with others. It is in spaces like JWTC that I see the potential for care to meet performance in the form of storytelling. To be an academic then comes with the responsibility of being a storyteller, as the good doctor Ike Anya encourages us to do. Storytelling our research can be a kind of performative practice, a methodology, and even a form of entertainment. Who said theory had to be dry and boring? Colleagues this week have encouraged me to storytell my work in various ways, a couple of which I share here: 1) One way we can story tell our work is by writing for blogs like Chimurenga, Africa is a Country, or The Conversation, the latter being an online collaboration between editors and academics to provide research-informed news and analysis. Writing in different registers for a more public audience is one way we can get the good word out there into the world. 2) Another way colleagues encourage me to practice my storytelling skills is to use the reminder of the JWTC workshop to think of possible ways to engage beyond theory in very concrete, practical ways: What if we spoke plainly enough at workshops like JWTC so that actual practitioners and persons of the community would want to come? Where are the Global South biologists, psychologists, journalists, and entrepreneurs with whom we can bounce ideas with, generate back and forth conversations, and possibly come up with solutions? These storytelling modes of exchange may sound idealistic, but I believe that, with a little bit of care and performance, such theoretical conversations are possible and damn right necessary for academia. Rachel Ceasar University of the Witwatersrand

On Behrooz Ghamari's "Foucault, Spirituality, and the Perils of Universal History" by Jorge Daniel Vásquez and Megan Eardley

The beginning of Friday’s session was marked by a radical commitment to putting the analysis of religion within a framework that addresses "happiness" in its political and revolutionary dimensions. Behrooz Ghamari raised questions concerning limits and the moving boundaries between history and memory as he reflected on his experience as part of the organizational process of the Iranian Revolution. Addressing the personal interest that Michael Foucault had in Shiite Islam (its rituals and legal practices) and his theoretical writing on the revolution in Iran (1978-1979), Ghamari argued that Foucault’s readers need to understand the characteristic ambiguity of the political process alongside an analysis of revolutionary religious expression. He reveals a Foucault for whom religion is a space in which the popular imagination is formed— both in the policy of the Iranian Revolution and in the Carter administration in the United States. The ambiguity that is engendered by revolutionary religious claims may open a space through and in which teleological thinking might be transgressed. Foucault arrived in Iran a week after the "Black Friday" massacre, when even the death of more than two hundred protestors, shot down from helicopters, could not stop people from their revolution. Foucault's presence in Iran can serve as an anchor for understanding his thinking about the history and the subject (i.e. the history of the present - its reinvention, the ambiguity that it produces) that is configured through a political spirituality: the subject is 'entirely' wrapped in a History that is not determined, but becomes a particular form of self-production, keeping the subject in a constant search for that is worth defending even beyond one’s own life. Thus, the analysis of the 'politics of spirituality' is located far from the reduction of revolutionary religious expression to an "archaic fascism.” On the contrary, it gives way to an important analytical challenge; to consider the religious-political phenomenon in its completely modern sense (reflecting on the relationship between different spheres in which the subject is produced). This analytical move allows Ghamari to return to questions surrounding the murder of the cartoonists of the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the “Arab Spring” beyond the Manichaeism of the freedom of expression as universalized value or Enlightened anti-Islam. To take the analysis further, we might echo some of the questions raised in the debate. In the global geopolitical context, to what extent is the analysis of the Arab Spring articulated in the same terms as Foucault’s analysis of the Iranian Revolution? What is the relationship between the specter (the ghost of the Iranian Revolution) and the ways we engage with revolution as either as a rupturing event or as an inheritance? Another entry would be to think about Foucault and the Iranian Revolution alongside the way Susan Buck-Morss thinks about the abstraction of the Haitian Revolution in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. The talk also opened possibilities of imagining a confluence of political spirituality and a political reading of the eschatological tension of St. Paul’s theology. Is a return to Saint Paul—and the tension between the now and the to-come—an attempt to take us out of the teleological prison of modern thought? What are Foucault's links with theoretical Orientalism and how can an event like the Iranian Revolution be read not as a 'break' in Foucault's thought but as a radicalization of the project which is manifested in his College de France seminars since 1977? Jorge Daniel Vásquez Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, Ecuador and Megan Eardley Princeton University School of Architecture

Maut ka Kua – The Death Well
: A Response to Anne Allison's Talk on "Greeting the Dead" by Suraj Yengde

Maut ka Kua – The Death Well
 When a talk finishes and the audience responds not only by clapping but also with cheers and whistles, in this way one can summarise the significance of the presentation they just witnessed. Cultural anthropologist, Anne Allison, was “Greeting the dead” and Managing the Solitary Existence in Japan. In a groundbreaking theory of death that derives from her book Precarious Japan published in 2013, Allison offers insights into the little-discussed socialities of Japan. Isolation, misery, pain, suffering, ‘rental’ love and death are some of the widely apprehended synonyms of shifting global capitals. Allison explains each of these in a succinctly interesting form as she narrates new forms of living as a changing “grammar of existence.”

You many think about Japan as being the country with advanced technological developments – robots, SONY, automobiles, bullet trains, etc. Apart from its highly advanced, bullet train-like growing economy, you must have also heard about “weird Japanese fetishisms,” such as relating to sex or sexual objects or widely watched pornography that interestingly hides male’s sexual parts and advertises females’. There is also another disturbing scenario that is little know and discussed in the western world: Allison brings our attention to some of the existentialities of modern day Japan. Life in this country appears as an archetype of blind spiritualists who do not believe in the notion of god and want to dissociate with religious institutions. Oxymoronically, there is also a growing tendency towards spiritualising one’s death. Death is a seductive phenomenon that has a profitable market in the growing economy of middle class, materialised Japan. While people in Japan want to immortalise the afterlife, in the present life they want to be assured of a promised dignity. The situation of Japan is such that wedding planners and the wedding industry in general are now turning towards the death business. As a simple principle of capitalism goes - business is favoured in terms of profitability. In this way we can see the more profitable business is becoming death business. Plots for the cremated ashes are sold expensively and the richer the dead ash is the better prospects the fossil gets. This is the ideal principle behind Buddhist capitalists who want to assure the Japanese a better death. Death becomes important because it assumes an important position of a certain sociality. Death is so rooted in the Japanese society that isolated people, who are abandoned from the familial as a belief system, want to be assured that they will be rest in dignity. Their fear of death is not as much an issue of temporality of life than the social life after death. Death is sold; this very phenomenon that Buddha announced as the ultimate truth, forms an assemblage with neo-materialism, producing non-confirmed fears. This results in a society becoming totally ridiculed, a masquerade of fake life undefined in its purpose of existence. All the chaos happens when religion as an institution sleeps with capital. 

It appears in Allison’s presentation that there is a limited role played by the Buddhist temples of a certain order that guarantee a ‘grave friend’ and also a service of ‘post death divorce’ in teaching the solitary society to be a part of the larger commune. Due to inappropriate advantages gained through the death business, Japanese individuals,’ especially young males, turn to find the comforts of life in immaterial things. They make virtual partners, toy friends, robot dogs and even organise a cremation ceremony for robotic pets who have lost their lives. This description of Japanese society urges those who are less fortunate (wealth-wise), to rethink and remodel the arrears of developments that they would want to undertake. The solitary society of Japan is a good example for the developing world to model: a society based on social consciousness and cultural involvements.

Allison’s presentation tries to summarise multiple issues discussed in her earlier book. That is why one is introduced to a sliding show of vignettes of experiences and narratives. While not addressed in Allison’s talk, the issues of people with different sexual orientations, woman as a fetish object, the conditions of ethnically marginalised societies and their role in the death economy, all become questions one has to start thinking about. Buddhism, on the other hand promises egalitarian rationalism and belief in community as a principle of ideal society also asking one to focus on individuality in order to attain the nirvana. In spite of the active Buddhist school of thought in Japan, the increasingly ‘social solitary’ life of the Japanese raises several questions of the capacities of such schools.

The vocabularies of security, social status, and recognition are the artificial effects reproduced by the orgasmic nature of capitalism impregnated with materialism. These identities are the result of inequality and unfavourable distribution of wealth where one grapples with detouring the phantasm of the petty economics of material life. If incidents of solitude are the result of job status and finances then it becomes an aspiring greedy middle class and upwards story. The materialist graphic nature of the Japanese abnormal society might also be the protest of the marginalised who cannot afford the richness of deaths. One might also ask, do the poor have such problems or is it the rich man’s hopeful disease?

 Suraj Milind Yengde is an Ambedkarite Africanist finishing his last bits of PhD thesis University of the Witwatersrand

Consoling Objects/Disconsoling Worlds: A Response to Gabrielle Schwab's Talk on "Apocalyptic Endgames" by Timothy Wright

For a workshop themed around the 'manufacture of happiness', there has been a surprising (but in hindsight unsurprising) tarrying with the experience of unhappiness. Unhappiness is after all the ground against which happiness becomes both legible and desirable. On days three and four of the workshop, several speakers addressed the relationship between happiness and the confrontation with death: with severe illness (Tina Sideris), with the potential of extinction in political revolution (Francoise Verges), with the prospect of dying alone and un-mourned (Anne Allison on contemporary Japan). In these situations, forms of happiness are produced from the most unpromising of contexts. In her brilliant, thought-provoking, and intricate talk 'Apocalyptic Endgames of the Mind: Ecology, Body and Affect in Samuel Beckett's Happy Days', Gabriele Schwab used Samuel Beckett's minimalist 1961 play as a 'laboratory' for exploring these themes. It is a play in which happiness and unhappiness are almost indistinguishable; in which unhappiness is seamlessly transformed into happiness. The mise-en-scene is stark: Act One opens onto a plain stage in which a woman, Winnie, is buried up to her waist in a mound of sand under a hellish sun. Her husband lives in a hole on the side of the mound and speaks little and monosyllabically. No other signs of human life are given. In Act Two, we are in the same place, but Winnie is now buried up to her neck. Despite this, Winnie somehow remains relentless upbeat. How does this happen? I want to condense Gabriele's very rich discussion on ecology -- psychic ecology as well as 'natural' -- by looking at the way she thought through the issue of adaptation, in particular the question of how one adapts to crisis. I am reminded of Shaw's famous dictum: the reasonable man changes himself to fit the world; the unreasonable man changes the world to fit himself; therefore all progress is made by unreasonable men. But Winnie's adaptation is made in the face of a world that appears utterly impervious to change, and is thus fundamentally a mode of survival. How does one adapt to a world that one cannot change? One answer is that Winnie is engaged, as Gabriele put it, in a 'self-manufactured pursuit of happiness'. The key to this manufacture of happiness is the object, which plays a peculiar role in this closed and inhospitable universe. These objects are both the physical, everyday objects Winnie removes from her handbag (a parasol, a comb, a toothbrush, a gun) and verbal or mental objects (Winnie's monologue, with its endless wry quotations from literary classics). Both words and things function as what Gabriele vividly termed 'consoling objects': consoling because they facilitate what Gabriele called -- borrowing a term from Ackbar Abbas -- Winnie's 'negative hallucination', her wish to not see things she doesn't want to see. Against the backdrop of trauma, objects allow her to protect her optimism. This works at a meta-theatrical level: the same objects reappear again and again on each night of performance as Winnie finds herself in the same space again and again, creating a sense of security and even comfort. Interesting is the way the play physically transforms affectively uncomfortable experiences into their obverse: Gabriele spoke of how, when she played the role of Winnie, she eventually grew to find the physically uncomfortable strictures of rehearsal and performance while buried to the neck consoling. One might even wonder if the play itself might function as a consoling object for the audience, a small closed world in which despair is cordoned off and managed. (Things are of course more complicated: Gabriele spoke of the way the play disrupts the audience's 'linking' with it). The consoling objects are thus more than merely outmoded consumer objects: they are objects that take on a life of their own and transform Winnie. Gabriele used this discussion of the consoling object to look at the ways in which happiness functions as an instrument of wilful blindness: a form of cruel optimism in which one survives by holding onto illusory attachments and refusing to see what is in front of one's eyes. Is happiness merely a form of blindness, an illness for which the clarity of unhappiness might constitute the antidote? In an uncanny way, the theme of objects becoming a consolation for a broken world seemed to seep into subsequent sessions. Anne Allison's talk, immediately following Gabriele's, dealt with an emergent Japanese funeral culture in which the isolated elderly Japanese purchase their own space in a funeral temple, where they can view their anticipated afterlife as an urn alongside a host of other urns - a space of sociality in death. In a similar vein she described the popularity of robot dogs for whom funerals and memorials are often conducted upon their expiration. In both cases, spaces we would expect to be occupied by a living thing were occupied by objects. It is perhaps too easy then to merely say these objects participate in the creation of negative hallucinations. A more productive way to think of the meaning of the consoling object was suggested by Kaushik, who asked whether we might think of Winnie not as a pathological subject but rather as a new form of species-being. Similarly, many responses to Anne Allison's account of new Japanese funeral practices wondered whether this was not a symptom of social atomisation but the emergence of new forms of social relation. In both cases, one might see a radical mutation in the forms of human relationships to objects, which are not merely consumed but enter into a profound relationship with human subjects. In the above examples, it is no longer clear whether the object is purely an object, or whether it has not become so bound up in our own constructions of ourselves that its objecthood is placed in doubt. Could it be the case that these 'subject-objects' are not technologies mediating, anticipating, or warding off relationships, but stand-ins for relationships themselves, something closer to a ‘bios’ than a ‘techné’, or something hovering ambiguously between the two? The question these consoling objects raise -- and it is one to which I have no answer -- is that of what a critical stance towards these consolatory forms of happiness should be. As academics we tend to take pride in exposing the rotten underbellies of the happy, in unveiling the broken world upon which happiness is erected. It is one thing to kill the joy of the self-satisfied. But who would think it moral to extinguish the fleeting joys scratched out of desperate situations, joys that ward off despair and loneliness? I was deeply moved by Anne Allison's photograph of a funeral temple where the living could see the wall of urns where their ashes would rest and find consolation in this posthumous community. I was moved both by the sadness of a world where people can only imagine community in death, and also by the joy of a genuinely beautiful space that had been created within it. What does one do with both these feelings? Timothy Wright WiSER, University of the Witwatersrand